42 years ago… the Gwangju uprising

 President Park Geun Hye (박근혜), he established an authoritarian and repressive regime following his 1961 coup . Nevertheless, he has also allowed Korea to become one of the 20 richest countries in the world. His death will bring real political instability to Korea. In reaction to this, one can note that the martial law, which involves the closing of universities, the prohibition of the political activities and which accentuates the censorship of the press, is then established. His successor and prime minister, Choi Kyu Ha (최규하), only stayed in power for a few months before being overthrown by another coup, that of General Chun Doo Hwan (전두환), on December 12.

At the beginning of May 1980, the democratic movements present in the universities began to intensify. In particular, they were revolting against martial law, culminating in a protest of over 100,000 people at Seoul Station on May 15. In response, Chun Doo Hwan enforced martial law on May 17 and sent military troops throughout Korea, particularly to South Jeolla (전라남도) whose capital is Gwangju. This region had historically been abandoned by Park Chung Hee in favor of his home region, Gyeongsang (경상도), and had therefore become a hotbed of opposition. 26 politicians who came from this region were also arrested.

So we come to the morning of May 18… Students gathered in front of Chonnam National University (전남대학교) to protest against the closure. The first heated exchanges take place with the police and the conflict gradually spreads to the whole city. More than 2000 demonstrators are present in the afternoon. At 4 p.m., the army arrives and the violent phase of the repression begins. Both participants and passers-by are clubbed during the latter.

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As a result, local anger grew and the number of protesters rose to 10,000 on May 20. During the night, thousands of taxis, buses, trucks and cars come to join the demonstrations in a procession towards the Provincial Office. The KBS transmitting station, which belonged to the government network, is also busy.

It is escalating, the security forces begin to fire on civilians and cause a significant number of deaths, especially around Gwangju station on the 20th and the previously mentioned Provincial Office on the 21st. seizing weapons, the civilians manage to push back the security forces for a period of time, but find themselves isolated.

From May 22 to 25, the protests spread throughout the region, in towns such as Mokpo (목포시) or Haenam (해남군), but they were quickly put down by the army and the roads were blocked. On the 27th, the government finally succeeded in channeling the capital from the southwest.

According to figures given by Chung Kun Sik ( 정근식) , professor at Chonnam University, there were 165 dead, 75 missing and 3,515 injured on the side of the demonstrators, for 41 dead and 253 injured on the side of the forces of the order (soldiers and military). For human rights associations, however, there could be thousands.

Despite this slaughter, it was not until 1988 that the government recognized the massacre and set up hearings, then 1995 for the first trials. Eight men, including Chun Doo Hwan and his successor Roh Tae Woo (노태우), were sentenced in 1997 for the acts, then finally pardoned by the president who followed them, Kim Young Sam (김영삼), under the pretext of preserving national peace.

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Today, it is undeniable that the generations who hold the reins of the country remember the uprising in Gwangju. Kim Dae Jung (김대중), who was the eighth president of the Republic of Korea from 1998 to 2003, had the city as his stronghold. As the main political opponent of the Chun Doo Hwan regime, he was even sentenced to death after the fact in 1980, before his sentence was commuted to exile thanks to the intervention of the United States.

Therefore, a huge number of films, books and even songs have been inspired by facts in their creative process. In terms of novels, we can speak of the two immense classics of Korean literature, Over There, Quietly, a Petal Falls (저기 소리없이 한 점 꽃잎이 지고) by Choe Yun (최윤), published in 1988 in Korea, and The Old Garden (오래된 정원) written by Hwang Sok Yong (황석영) and published in 2000. Later, Shin Kyung Sook (신경숙) also did her part on the subject in 2010 with I’ll be right there  (어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고), as well as literary sensation Han Kang (한강) with The Returning One (소년이 온다) in 2014.

The older books got a film adaptation, namely A Petal (꽃잎) by Jang Sun Woo (장선우) in 1996 and The Old Garden by Im Sang Soo (임상수) in 2006. In 2007, May 18 (화려한 휴가) by Kim Ji Hoon (김지훈) also takes place during the events. More recently, in 2012, the consequences of the revolt are shown in 26 years (26년), adapted from the webtoon by Kang Full (강풀) and directed by Cho Geun Hyun (조근현), and A Taxi Driver (택시운전사 ) directed by Jang Hoon (장훈) in 2017. The trailers (except for A Petal ) can be found below:

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In terms of series, we can talk about the huge success Sandglass (모래시계) broadcast in 1995 with an audience rate of 64.5%. In 2005, 5th Republic (제5공화국), which looked at Chun Doo Hwan’s presidency, also staged the uprising.

In comparison, the theme inspired the music scene quite late. Beyond the revolutionary songs created during the conflict, such as the May Song (오월의 노래) inspired by Who Killed Grandma? by Michel Polnareff, and the March for the Beloved (임을 위한 행진곡), there are only a few traces. In 2013, in the long version of the clip of That’s my fault(슬픈약속) by boy band SPEED (스피드), it can clearly be seen that the Gwangju Uprising serves as the backdrop, but the events do not impact the lyrics of the song. On the contrary, in Sogyeokdong (소격동), title of SeoTaiji (서태지) in collaboration with IU (아이유), the singer recalls his memories and feelings during these few days which took place during his childhood.

In 1997, a cemetery was erected for the victims in Gwangju and declared a national cemetery in 2002. If you pass through Gwangju and want to honor this symbol of the struggle for democracy, take the time to reflect there.

PHOTO CREDITS: Korea Tourism Board; May 18 Memorial Foundation; Korean Broadcasting System (KBS); Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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